Ever tried hypnotherapy?
It is touted as a therapy for many issues: from quitting smoking to losing weight to dealing with deeply buried trauma, and it seems that hypnotherapy is rapidly moving away from the ‘eat this onion that you’ll think is an apple and it will taste delicious until you wake up’ kind of stage show that many people visualise when the H word is mentioned.
I once knew a man with a smoking habit he was desperate to give up. He’d tried everything, with little success until someone suggested hypnotherapy. And guess what, dear reader? Yes, after one session he threw his packet of cigarettes away and never looked back. No cravings, no withdrawal symptoms: he just didn’t need to smoke anymore because the hypnotherapy had changed his view of smoking and had enabled him to decide cigarettes had no place in his life. OK, so maybe it wasn’t that straightforward, but you get the idea.
Some people swear by hypnotherapy as a way of dealing with over eating, when all manner of diets have failed. It is as if the therapy has re-programmed their brain to see things differently: to give them the ability to say ‘no’ to the kinds of foods that are not conducive to good health and to maintaining a healthy weight.
One theory goes that everything that ever happened in your life exists as a memory but is held unconsciously – otherwise your brain would be full of the minutiae of life that it wouldn’t be able to function. We remember what we need to, but we ‘forget’ that which we don’t need to hold consciously. Although why I need to remember my ex-husband’s birthday given that I haven’t seen him for nearly thirty years, when I can’t remember where I put my keys half an hour ago, I’ll never know. According to this theory, what hypnotherapy does is enable you to access those memories, no matter how well buried they are either by dint of effort in order to forget something horrible, or simply by the passage of time.
Obviously this is difficult (or even nigh impossible) to prove – another theory suggests that our brains remember what is recent, important or useful. Eventually, what we don’t actually need to remember is forgotten – perhaps until we smell a particular aroma or hear a song on the radio, and then our brains do that amazing thing with its internal filing cabinets and presents you with a memory long forgotten.
Of course it isn’t without its controversies. There have been claims that hypnotherapists have introduced ideas and thoughts into a person’s mind, and presented these as facts. After all, if a stage hypnotist can make a person believe an onion is an apple, why shouldn’t they also make a person believe that they were horribly abused as a child?
The relationship between client and therapist is based first and foremost on trust. You have to have complete faith in the person who is seeking to help you make sense of your experiences, and to move forward in your life able to manage the complex emotions and feelings that have resulted from those experiences.
In the past I have found hypnotherapy a very useful way of dealing with the considerable emotional baggage I insist on carrying around with me – my hypnotherapist was able to help me see that my responses to what has happened to me are entirely reasonable and normal. During our sessions, she enabled me to ‘go back’ to key points in my life, experience what happened then, feel the emotions I felt then, always with the ability to retreat to my ‘safe place’ when things got a bit rough. The ‘safe place’ was a somewhere I designed myself: by picturing a location where I felt comfortable and happy. Every session would end with a spell here: allowing the sun to shine on my insecurities and fears and dissipate them before I would go on my way to reflect on what had been revealed.
The crucial thing here is the kinds of questions she asked during our sessions: she was very careful not to lead me by asking questions that promoted a particular outcome. By asking me to describe what I was feeling, seeing and hearing she enabled me to explore my memories as if they were happening in the present: I felt safe and in control and I was always able to let her know when I wanted to retreat. It would be very easy for a hypnotherapist to ask a client ‘where did he touch you?’ or ‘how many times did she hit you?’ but very loose, open questions enable the client to be in control of what they remember, according to their agenda rather than the therapist’s. As I say, trust is the key, and for someone like me who uses the maintenance of control as a way of keeping myself emotionally safe, this was a key aspect of our relationship.
Being hypnotised is a very strange feeling, and one that can take some getting used to. Whilst I was fully awake and in the present, I felt the emotions and physical sensations as though I was in the past. So for example I could feel the carpet under my bare feet as I remembered going upstairs to my bedroom, could smell the newly mown grass, and feel the smooth texture of my bedroom wallpaper beneath my fingers, complete with the tiny overlaps between edges of the paper.
Knowing when the therapy cycle is at an end can be difficult, however in my case, this was driven by me to a certain extent and when the time came I knew it was the right moment for me to end the sessions and walk away. For me hypnotherapy wasn’t a ‘cure’ – it was just a way of understanding and coming to terms with my experiences, and recognising the impact these experiences have had on my development, and how they impact on my self-concept, my core beliefs and why I react in certain ways to situations in my adult life.
One thing that is important to acknowledge is that all hypnotherapy was doing was helping me to remember. These were my memories: as reliable or unreliable as any other, including where I left my keys or my ex-husband’s birthday. It is no guarantee that these events ever happened, at least not in the way that I remember them. As those most eloquent songsters Gary Barlow and Robbie Williams said in their song ‘Shame’ – “Well there’s three versions of this story: mine and yours and then the truth”.
Hypnotherapy helped me to explore the voracity of my truth, my feelings and my memories. It didn’t reveal that I was Cleopatra in a previous life, but it did provide the insight into my own behaviour that enabled me to come to terms with my experiences, and live with the person who emerged from those experiences with higher levels of self-compassion and understanding.
Whether it is a genuinely helpful therapy, or a load of old bunkum, I believe that hypnotherapy must be measured on the impact it has on individual clients and if the client experiences real, tangible benefits then I’d say it is money and time well spent. It must be stressed that I am not an expert in hypnotherapy, so all of what I have written is my own personal point of view.
My version of the truth, if you will.